Bikini-clad baristas in Modesto perking up coffee crowd

August 3, 2011 

It’s 5 a.m. and you’re just hitting the road with a long day ahead.

There’s nothing like a good cup of coffee or, better yet, an espresso strong enough to starch your tuxedo to get you wide awake and alert. Driving down either Yosemite Boulevard or Prescott Road, you notice a coffee kiosk and pull into the drive-thru lane.

You reach the window to order, and suddenly the caffeine fix becomes totally irrelevant. Why?

BECAUSE THE BARISTA INSIDE IS WEARING A BIKINI!

You rub your eyes which, you assume, are messing with you. You shake your head. You look — no, you gape — again.

YES, IT’S 5 A.M. AND SHE’S WEARING A BIKINI!

Talk about a wake-up call … .

Alexandra Ireland obviously is thrilled with the attention she and her bikini-clad employees have drawn since she and boyfriend Nate Wilson opened their first Bottoms Up Espresso kiosk on Prescott Road last winter and a second on Yosemite Boulevard in mid-July. Valley TV stations recently zoomed in on it, and a video posted on modbee.com has had nearly 1,150 views.

Sex sells just about everywhere and everything else: TV, magazines, movies, products. Channel surf DirecTV and you’ll find paid programming advertising bras. The names of these shows? “Perfect Boobs” and the “Ahh Bra.” Locally, the provocatively named Tiitz Salon in Modesto, where young women in skimpy attire cut men’s hair, closed in 2007.

Bottoms Up employs that same kind of shock-value marketing as evidenced by the names of the beverages (parental guidance suggested) at the coffee kiosks.

Bikini bars, Ireland said, are popular in other states including her native Washington. She worked at one there before moving to Modesto last December.

“It started in Washington, when a Starbucks moved in,” she said. “One of the baristas asked the boss if she could wear a bikini to boost sales.”

They’ve been controversial in places like Everett, Wash., where five of the baristas were charged with prostitution in 2009. Ireland said she has strict rules prohibiting her employees from dating or interacting with customers beyond making their drinks.

“That’s not what we’re here for,” she said. “You’ll be fired.”

That other stuff happened in the Seattle area, birthplace of grunge rock, Microsoft and, oh, yes, Starbucks.

Modesto, it seems, was way behind the bikini bar curve, which shouldn’t surprise anyone in a city where some folks fended off a Hooters when the national chain wanted to open one of its restaurants here in 1994. Hooters is famous for having great-looking waitresses who wear tight, hiked-up shorts and tank tops. The company ultimately decided not to locate here and punted again last year when it couldn’t get a billboard it wanted along Highway 99.

Compared to the bikinis at Bottoms Up, the Hooters outfits look like winter formal wear.

Ireland said she limits the limited clothing.

“If you can’t wear it to the beach, you can’t wear it to work,” Ireland said. Come winter, the kiosks are well heated.

The women she hires must hit what she calls her “trifecta.”

“You have to be good looking, have a great personality and work fast enough to make coffee,” she said. “Finding the person who can do all three isn’t easy. Some pretty girls grew up spoiled and aren’t used to working hard.”

Wait — isn’t that gender discrimination? Shouldn’t she be obligated to also hire guys who would work in European-style bathing suits?

Not going there, she said.

In the mid-1990s, four men challenged Hooters because the chain refused to hire male waiters. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission demanded a $22 million fine, for Hooters to hire male waiters, to pay reparations to any men it had denied jobs, and to set up scholarships benefitting men. Hooters won when the government quietly abandoned its case.

I suspect an underlying reason was that guys in Speedos probably would need to wear full-body hair nets to comply with food service codes.

Bottoms Up, meanwhile, passed all state health standards for food services, said Mary-Kate Cook, a registered environmental health specialist III for Stanislaus County. She’s the one who inspected the Prescott Road kiosk when it opened in February.

The baristas are trained in food-handling procedures that don’t contaminate the products.

Whatever they wear — or don’t — has only one criteria, Cook said.

“The clothing has to be clean,” Cook said. “That’s where our authority ends.”

Ireland said she attended culinary school in Washington to learn the food service industry.

In Modesto, a few people have complained about Bottoms Up’s dress code to Councilman Dave Lopez, whose district includes the Prescott Road kiosk.

“But nothing real strong,” he said. “In this economy, it’s hard to take shots at someone trying to make a living.”

He doesn’t buy the Gidget goes French Roast comparisons, though.

“When you go to the beach, you’re prepared for it,” Lopez said. “You go there (Bottoms Up), you might not be prepared for it. It catches some folks off guard.”

Ireland said her customers include Gallo employees — male and female — off-duty police and firefighters, Modesto Irrigation District workers and others. At least 30 percent of the customers are women, she claimed, with 80 percent of all customers returning on a daily basis.

It’s really pretty simple, Ireland said.

People who are offended by young women in bikinis can always buy their coffee elsewhere, say, where the baristas bare much less of themselves.

Either way, it’s an eye-opener.

Jeff Jardine’s column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at (209) 578-2383.

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